Article

How Your Language Strategy Can Make or Break Transformation Success

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Language in the workplace

Whether an organization is changing its ways of working, giving its Employer Value Proposition a refresh, or transforming its culture, the role of language is sometimes overlooked in the race to get things done quickly. This happens when leaders are so eager to see their new policies and procedures put into place that they rush the implementation process, often communicating big changes with haste.

But language and word choice are critical factors in successfully implementing change at any organization because they determine how receptive your people are to welcoming the change. After all, as leading language strategists maslansky+partners say, “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” Take these two statements for example:

1) “Today we are launching our new change initiative to help cut costs and make us more profitable as an organization.”

2) “Today we are launching a new work program to streamline our day-to-day roles and responsibilities, enabling greater efficiency and an improved experience for our customers.”

These two examples very simply demonstrate how the same change can be framed in two different ways, each resulting in a different human reaction by the reader.

By understanding the impact of word choice—its nuances, connotations, and biases—people leaders hoping to transform their business will be far less likely to experience resistance from employees. That’s why we’ve partnered with maslansky + partners, a global leader in language strategy of Fortune 500 firms, to share insights into effective word choice during times of change in the workplace.

Language in the context of change

The word “change” is likely to evoke different feelings for different people. Some may experience excitement and anticipation, while others may feel anxiety, exhaustion, or fear.

Why?

Because our individual perspective and response to change is shaped through a combination of past experiences, whether they are personal or professional. This means that, through no fault of their own, employees are coming into change initiatives with built-in mindsets, opinions, and often, resistance.

So, how can leaders make change easy for employees to accept? How can they accommodate these individual differences and opinions within the change curve?

Part of the answer lies within how leaders frame and communicate the change throughout the organization, and how they acknowledge the individual differences among their employees. The language, perspective, and the organization’s history around change are all critical factors to consider.

Here are three ways that leaders can use language to their advantage and get employees on board with change:

1) Tailor the language

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating change in the workplace, the one thing all managers should do is make their language specific to their employees’ change journey. Leaders should ask themselves if the announcement of their next big change initiative has the possibility to make their employees feel overwhelmed, or if it will leave them fearing for their jobs, and then craft their message accordingly. The tone used, as well as the way the message is communicated, must be different for the announcement of a massive change such as an M&A, compared to minor changes, such as switching to new video-conferencing software.

To deliver the message appropriately, it’s important to arm yourself with meaningful insights about how your employees might react. For example, consider a thorough audience analysis, using interviews, listening workshops, and/or surveys to help develop personas that reflect your employees, and the different stages they’re at in their change journey.

Also, consider the history of change within the organization. Was there a highly disruptive change in recent years that may negatively influence employee perceptions of the upcoming change? These will all help to build a strong picture of what your employees are feeling, how particular messages and tones will resonate with them, and what their preference may be in terms of channels and who’s communicating what.

2) Clearly define the ‘why’

Another crucial point to specify to your people is why the organization is deciding to make this change. Leaders should build their narratives around this, ensuring transparency and delivering it in a way that employees can connect with. If people don’t know the purpose and benefit of implementing something new, they won’t have a reason to see it as anything more than a distraction to their already busy schedules.

Adapt the language used for the type of communication and the audience: For an organization-wide message, use collective terms (“we”) and keep the focus on the long-term vision and purpose of the transformation, and why it’s good for everyone. This will encourage “pro-social” behavior in favor of the change. Collectively, employees will lean into the change, helping to shift the mindsets of those who were initially more skeptical.

For communications targeted at specific personas or groups of employees, find out what matters to them – the “what’s in it for me” – and structure your core value proposition around that. Will it make their job easier? Will they receive learning and development that will contribute to career development goals?

3) Lead with humanity

And lastly, remember to communicate and lead with humanity. In a study carried out by maslansky + partners to determine the qualities of successful leaders through periods of intense change, they found the most important tenets are:

1) Stay away from corporate speak. It’s hard to find personal meaning in a speech laced with jargon or corporate buzzwords.

2) Be authentic and vulnerable. Communicate with your employees at a personal level and use language that you feel comfortable and natural using.

3) Imperfection is perfect. Live or unedited videos where you’re speaking from the heart without a script will show your employees that you’re emotionally invested in the change.

Sometimes the message can be hard to deliver but leaning into the people side of change — understanding the fears, anxieties, and worries that employees may be feeling — can really help your communications resonate personally and emphasize the message.

Implementing lasting change at an organization is no small feat, but addressing these critical factors is the first step in a successful journey.

Isobel Mayers-Head is a Senior Consultant at Daggerwing Group, where she focuses on measuring the impact of change and communications to inform strategies on how to best enable functions to deliver a great employee experience, and help ensure that change sticks. Izzy has experience in change management, organizational development, measurement and research, communications and employee engagement, and is passionate about bringing the ‘human’ side to the work she does. She works across a variety of industries, including pharmaceutical, banking, non-profit and technology (B2B and B2C).
Lex Rees is a Senior Consultant at Daggerwing Group. Fascinated by how humans and organizations respond to change, her background in communications and sport have seen her develop a particular passion for culture change and how we communicate during times of uncertainty. Outside of work, Lex enjoys walking, cycling, and really, really good coffee.
Sachi is a Vice President at maslansky + partners, a language strategy firm. She counsels her clients on how to tackle the toughest communication challenges, whether it’s neutralizing concerns around a new technology or rebuilding a company’s reputation when the odds are against you. She’s passionate about deeply understanding employee mindsets when crafting Purpose narratives, communicating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, and driving cultural transformation. She firmly believes that radical empathy is the key to effective communication. Outside of m+p, you can find Sachi guiding yoga classes and enjoying long walks in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and two cats.